Lessons I Learned Running an E-Commerce Store

For many years, my wife and I have enjoyed spending our weekends at estate sales, yard sales, auctions, and thrift stores. It’s fun treasure hunting for the rare and unusual, and antiques give you a physical connection to the past that I find worthwhile. I collect old books, vintage technology, art supplies, pencils, and whatever else I happen to find interesting. At some point, I started routinely culling my collections so they wouldn’t get out of hand. Then I began looking for things I could sell for a profit to fund other purchases. I sold smaller items in my eBay store, and larger items locally on Facebook Marketplace. At a certain point, I realized that my side hustle was generating enough revenue that I could quit my day job as a Web App Dev and become a full-time e-commerce business owner. So I did. This is what I learned from that experience:

Become an Industry Expert

I thought that I was in the business of flipping rare antiques for profit. What I came to realize is, I was really in the business of leveraging knowledge. In order to acquire valuable inventory, I needed to be able to identify value where most people saw trash. Moving items from a market where they are under-valued to a market where they are highly sought. This is difficult to do, and requires a great deal of knowledge.

I studied certain areas in great depth. I read books and blogs, I watched videos, I joined online groups, I pulled sales data from various sources… I made myself an expert on the sorts of things I could likely find in the places I most often looked. Not just the monetary value, but also the market trends for those categories.

For example, some items sell for a high rate, but don’t sell very quickly, so you have to account for how long your funds will be tied up in that piece of merchandise. Every dollar trapped in inventory is a dollar that you can’t spend on acquiring new inventory. Some items you might be able to buy for $50 and sell for $500, a healthy ROI, but the customers for that item are few and difficult to reach. Some items are so rare that it’s impossible to find data on previous sales, which creates an element of risk that must be accounted for. Data is king.

I’ll give you a real example. There was a certain model of Polaroid camera that I would occasionally come across, usually for about $5. Most people saw Polaroids as virtually worthless since they require a special film that hasn’t been produced in decades, making the camera essentially a paper weight. However, I knew that a new company had recently sprung up to cater to the vintage camera enthusiast market, and this company was now producing film for old Polaroid cameras. Suddenly, these “worthless” cameras were in high demand in certain circles. They would sell almost instantly for around $80, meaning every time I came across one for $5 I knew that I would make a quick return of 16 times my investment. I did this many times. Knowledge equals profit.

Find Passionate Niche Markets

My specialty was finding hard-to-find, high-value antiques, and selling those antiques to passionate collectors. I sold fountain pens, movie props, cameras, books, art, industrial decor, and anything else I knew a collector would highly prize. Truly obscure items don’t pop up on eBay as often as common items, and when they do, they are often not optimized in such a way that collectors can easily find the listing. This can make it difficult for collectors to find the items they are the most motivated to acquire, and with the economics of supply-and-demand, the more difficult it is to acquire an item the more a collector is willing to pay for it. Connecting these motivated collectors with their holy grail equals profit. Thankfully, groups of like-minded collectors tend to gather on social media platforms, which made my job easier. To reach them:

  • I joined niche collector groups on Facebook, Reddit, and certain forums.
  • I posted quality pictures of my inventory on Instagram, with hashtags that would attract the attention of collectors, and descriptions that indicated that the items were for sale.
  • I marketed my social media accounts to grow followers, who would eagerly watch to see if I posted the items they collected.
  • I kept lists of good customers so I could send them special offers.

When you sell common items, there is a larger market, but also a greater level of competition. Greater supply, less demand. On the other hand, passionate niche markets have less supply and greater demand, but you have to work harder to reach those customers. You have to go where the customers are.

Know when to Pivot

I enjoyed running my own company. I learned a great deal, and I earned enough money to live pretty comfortably. But I also came to the realization that what I was doing was not scalable. There is only one of me and only so many hours in a day. Unfortunately, that means there is a limit to how much I could conceivably earn (since the nature of the business wasn’t conducive to expansion), and I also knew that my personal income potential was higher than this business could provide. Besides this, I found myself ready to take on a new challenge. After running my company for a few years, I decided to pivot and channel the passion I had devolved for business and marketing into a new career. (However, I still sell as a side hustle, and likely always will.)

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